FEATURED REVIEW: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Bryan S. Glosemeyer, original on Goodreads here.

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason."

The opening line of Neal Stephenson's new 'hard SF' thriller, Seveneves, is bound to go down as one of the great opening lines in science fiction. I'm sure it will soon be mentioned in the same breath as William Gibson's opening line to Neuromancer. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

Seveneves: A Novel
By Neal Stephenson

So as you can see, the very first sentence packs quite a punch and the punches keep on coming. The clock is ticking till the sky itself burns for five thousand years. Will science and reason save humanity in the harshness of space? Or will politics and greed be our final undoing? Well, I won't spoil it for you, but if you are familiar at all with Stephenson's books, you'll expect very smart and very brave people try to save the world with their smarts and bravery.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The premise is exciting and fun and the tension keeps ratcheting up and up. While this is most definitely 'speculative' fiction, he keeps the science grounded, yet fascinating. No artificial gravity, no warp drives, no energy shields. As usual, Stephenson does a great job of helping to make sense of the science for the average reader. But to do so means he does a lot of 'infodumps.' His books have always been high on the infodump quotient, Seveneves is even more so.

The book is divided into three parts, and I have to say I found the second act the most compelling, fast paced, edge of your seat reading. While there are smart people being heroic throughout the book, this is by far the most adventurous and heroic section.

I do have a few criticisms, and most of that has to do with character. Stephenson has never been one to dive too deep into his characters's inner worlds, but even so he could craft fleshed out, compelling and fun characters like Raz, Hiro, Jack Shaftoe. To be honest, I have to say that most of the characters fell pretty flat for me in Seveneves. I understand that the majority of them are scientists and engineers and they're not going to be the type to fall apart int an emotional mess when the shit hits the fan. But this is some pretty goddamn apocalyptic shit hitting the fan and I would expect even the coolest, logical engineer to have their emotions get hotter and go deeper than what we get here.

One character standout, though still lacking in the emotional depth I just mentioned, is the African American scientist/celebrity Doc Dubois. Any fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson won't be able to help but picture Dubois as Tyson. Even the speech cadences are there.

Again, without going into spoiler territory, the third act of this book was very reminiscent of Raz's quest in Anathem.

All criticisms taken into account, this is still a damn fun and exciting read. Fans of hard sci fi and doomsday thrillers are going to dig this a lot, I think.

Also, when I was reading it, I kept envisioning it not as a movie, but as a miniseries. With the right budget and enough hours to tell the story (5-6 hours I'd say) this would be awesome to see come to life on the screen.

BTW, I also made an online mixtape inspired by the book, especially parts one and two. You can check it out here!

FEATURED REVIEW: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Emily Carlson

The Low-Down:    

In a multiverse where magic is the product of the rise and fall of three celestial bodies, things can get a little complicated. Characters’ power waxes and wanes with the movement of these satellites, but the world seems to have reached a balance. However, that balance is shattered when the fourth, dark satellite – Oma – begins ascending. Oma, the Worldbreaker. Last time Oma rose, continents were literally torn in half by its power, and it seems that this generation will be no different. 

The Mirror Empire follows Lilia, a girl from a dying universe with an amber sky, as she is hurled into a new and thriving universe in escape from the dark forces gathering in her amber world. But Lilia is far from safe in her new blue-skied universe because the armies she fled haven’t given up the chase.


Key Themes:

Genocide, multiverses, TRULY NOXIOUS WEEDS, gender and sexuality, mystical orphans, THE DOPPLEGANGER, celestial bodies (wink, wink), BLOOD


What’s Good:

Hurley has bitten off an awful lot with her ambitious Mirror Empire. And for those of us who are bored with a linear and predictable narrative, this is a very good thing. Hurley seems determined to supplant nearly every fantasy troupe, even down to her five-gendered social structure with group marriage and funerary cannibalism. These bold rejections of what we take for granted in our own society are illuminating in Hurley’s hands. 

Take for example the thirty-something, war-hardened general returning home from her tour abroad to her teenaged, undereducated, ornamental husband. On one hand, this seems very familiar to fantasy fans (Drogo and Daenerys, anyone?). But on the other, it is completely unexpected and frankly, appalling. Readers might swoon at the scenes of Drogo and Dany together, might even excuse the some of the harsh treatment that Dany receives from Drogo. However, when the general dominates her husband and when we see how isolated he truly is, it’s harder to wear those same rose-colored glasses. 

The result is a novel that is challenging, though inducing, and at times shocking. But very much worth the time of any fantasy reader ready for something different. 

What’s Less Than Good:

Hurley has bitten off an awful lot with her ambitious Mirror Empire. What is this novel’s greatest strength can be its most frustrating weakness. Switching characters, universes, and social structures can be very confusing. Hurley pulls it off with a surprising amount of ease, but readers can still get lost easily. 

Furthermore, although Hurley is making wonderful strides towards fulfilling the potential of the unique world she created, only time (and more novels) will tell if Hurley is able to pull this off with the finesse demanded when an author deviates this much from reality. In my mind, the farther an author strays from reality, the heavier the burden is to make all of that mental strain worth our while.  


The Final Verdict: 

Maintain focus. If you can do that, The Mirror Empire is definitely worth the read. But for those of us who don’t want to leave a book with a pounding headache (I mean… not really, but you get it) this may not be the novel for you. The world Hurley creates is rich, engaging, and completely surprising. It is worth the effort the novel will require from you, but know that this is not a mindless read. So much of the world in this book is utterly new that it is bound to leave most people feeling a little star-struck. 

The world Hurley builds takes on a personality of itself, much like another character you are getting to know. It would be easy for the human characters to fade into the background of the novel and let the newness of the world stun readers. However, the characters in the novel are utterly profound. They are likable and revolting in turn, but in a way which reminds us of our own little green planet with a blue sky. The true wonder of this book is not the differences Hurley creates between her worlds and ours, but the similarities. Somehow, Hurley has managed to create a story where even with a radically different reality to ours, we are able to relate to and care about her characters. 

If you’re willing to go the extra literary mile, Hurley promises to deliver even more mind-blowing confusion in the upcoming Empire Ascendant dropping in October 2015. 

FEATURED REVIEW: Nemesis Games (Expanse #5) by James S.A. Corey

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Robert Zak
Ed note: Review is mostly spoiler free, but reader beware!

Nemesis Games (The Expanse)
By James S.A. Corey

Executive Summary: Best one yet! I've always enjoyed this series, but I really loved this book. My only complaint would I don't have more to read! I can't wait for book 6.

Audiobook: Jefferson Mays is back! Huzzah! Don't get me wrong, he's not one of my favorite narrators or anything, but he is good. And the guy they got to replace him for book 4 was not. I was considering switching to text for this book if that narrator was used again. Thankfully I didn't have to. 

His accents for Avasarala and Alex are excellent as always. Everyone else isn't really anything special. He has good inflection and reads in a nice and clear voice. Hopefully they'll be able to get him for all the future books.

Full Review
The Expanse books have been a lot of fun since I finally picked them up last year. However I was starting to feel like maybe it was running out of steam.

I liked Leviathan Wakes and thought Caliban's War was even better. However I felt Abaddon's Gate and especially Cibola Burn weren't as good.

I've grown tired of the rotating POV's with new characters to follow around. Part of the problem is that Avasarala and Bobbie were so great in Caliban's War, everyone that followed was a disappointment.

Not only that, but they didn't really feature in books 3 and 4 and I think that's a waste. Thankfully that's been remedied in this book. While they aren't POV characters again, they do feature fairly heavily in the plot, albeit Bobbie moreso than Avasarala.

The other problem was I always found at least 1 or 2 of the POV to be less interesting than the others. The best part is that instead of forcing the readers to deal with some new characters they won't like as much, they chose to make the other 3 POVs the remaining members of the Rocinante. Not only do we finally get in the heads of characters I've come to love in the last 4 books, but we get more of their backstories as well, especially Naomi and Amos. 

In fact if you haven't read The Churn previously, I'd highly recommend doing so before this novel. I think you'll get a lot more out of Amos's storyline if you do. I'm hard pressed to pick a favorite plotline. They were all just so good.

So apart from excellent choice for POVs what really makes this book so great is the focus of the story. The stuff with the protomolecule in the last four books has been interesting, but this book mostly takes a break from that.

The tensions have long been bubbling between the three human factions of Earth, Mars and The Belt/OPA have finally come to a head. And just when I thought I was enjoying this book, BAM! It somehow got even better.

This is a very different story than last four. That may upset some fans, but for me it breathed new life into a series that seemed in danger of losing its way.

Some characters in this book made me so mad! Others made me scared or nervous. Just seeing Bobbie and Avasarala made me happy. I hated having to stop listening each day, and I couldn't wait to start listening again. 

To me that's the sort of thing that pushes something from a 4-star rating into the vary rare company of a 5-star rating. It also put it solidly on my favorites shelf. I will definitely be listening to this one again.

If I had one complaint it's that it's over! I can't wait for book 6! If you found yourself not as happy with the last book or two, I highly recommend giving this one a shot, I really think it's best one yet!

FEATURED REVIEW: Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Emily Carlson

The Low-Down:
Robin Hobb is back, my friends. And for devotees of her epic fantasy series, Realm of the Elderlings, this is a very good thing. Fool’s Assassin is the much-anticipated continuation of the story of Fitz and the Fool, a pair of outcasts who struggle to save their beloved Six Duchies from near disaster. 

Fool’s Assassin opens while Fitz is enjoying his well-earned retirement. Things are finally peaceful and although he cherishes the quiet contentment of his life, Fitz struggles to accept that the need for violence is completely over. He still sequesters himself away from his loved ones, still keeps secrets like a compulsion, still can’t seem to let go of the intrigue - no matter how much he might like to. 

But when some suspicious coincidences start hinting of danger lurking outside Fitz’s rural, idyllic life, it seems it might be a good thing that Fitz has had trouble letting go of his past, because it certainly hasn’t let go of him. 

Key Themes
Country life, paranoia, fatherhood, A MURDER MOST FOUL, prophesy, creepy-crawlies, class, secret passageways, THE ULTIMATE DRAMA QUEEN

What’s Good 
Hobb is a master storyteller. Over the course of the last nine books, Hobb has honed her characters into realistically flawed, frustrating, and oh-so-lovable men and women.  Though the over ten-year gap between Fool’s Fate and Fool’s Assassin gnawed at many fans, the gap was deliberate. With such beloved characters and intricate plot, Hobb has been careful not to exploit them. That is the true triumph of this novel. Nothing here feels forced, nothing feels like Hobb simply wanted to capitalize off of her most recognized and well-loved series. Instead, Hobb has crafted a story that leaves you thinking, Of course! How could I have thought Fitz would fade into quiet retirement?? 

Hobb’s strength has always been her ability to make us care about her characters, and Fool’s Assassin fits right in with her previous books. Some of them have us tearing our hair and shaking the book in frustration, some have us cheering into the pages, but all of them feel fully realized. 

Furthermore, in a marked departure from her previous books staring Fitz, we are finally privy to more than one first-person narrator! Though I won’t reveal who this narrator is, I will say that it was a refreshing and exciting change that is probably going to prove necessary in her next novels. Hobb also builds on our feelings of dramatic irony in this book (everyone remember those high school English classes??) – the characters are intentionally a few steps behind the reader, creating delicious tension to put us all on the edge of our seats.

As another tasty tidbit, it seems that we may finally get a glimpse into the mysterious southern country The Fool hails from!

What’s Less Than Good
Though Hobb springs into action with hints of doom left and right, make no mistake – Fool’s Assassin falls victim to first-volume-in-a-trilogy-syndrome. Odd ends from the previous series and wrapped up. We build a detailed picture of Fitz’s current life. New threads of intrigue are introduced. But, just when the action is starting to get really exciting, we break for the new book. Fool’s Assassin is crucial to move the plot along, and that’s not all that it does, but it can feel frustrating to have so many questions by the end of the book. 

Furthermore, though Hobb always strives to have her novels and trilogies as self-contained as possible, readers with no experience in Realm of the Elderlings will be shortchanged by starting with this novel. Tearful reunions will make no sense, bittersweet partings won’t have their full effect. But that doesn’t mean this series isn’t worth it, it means those readers should look forward to this book at the end of finishing the previous nine books - because it is totally worth it. 

The Final Verdict
Hobb had a lot of expectations to live up to when she decided to continue the story of Fitz and the Fool. Such a beloved series is both a blessing and a curse to an author. However, Hobb rises to the challenge admirably. Although only time will tell if this series can capture the grandeur of her previous novels, Fool’s Assassin has all the hallmarks of a great new series. 

More than anything, Fool’s Assassin promises to capture our attention for her next novel in the series, and leaves us all slobbering for more. 

FEATURED REVIEW: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Daniel Eavenson

I've read the first part of the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Justice, which I enjoyed very much.  It was an excellent introduction to a new world of science fiction, and an interesting arc for a series where an empire would wage a secret war against itself.  Therefore, I went into this second entry with a set of expectations about the content of this novel.  Expectations that were thoroughly thwarted by the author writing something else.

I had expected more intrigue and action.  More surprises and technological horrors that raged through the last third of Ancillary Justice.  I guess I had forgotten the first two thirds of quiet introspection and excellent world building that had proceeded all that fun. Instead, Ancillary Sword takes us to new places, but they are small intimate locations that hold none of the galactic level chess game that the end of the first novel had primed me for.

Ancillary Sword follows the same main character as Ancillary Justice.  The cybernetic former ship AI turned revenge driven walking corpse Breq takes command of a new ship at the behest of the emperor of the titular Radch.  Instead of pursuing the secret war raging at the heart of the empire, Breq decides that personal matters must be seen to, and travels to Athoek station, where the only living relative of his beloved Lieutenant Awn works as a Horticulturalist.

This is an extremely personal story for Breq.  The character is trying to come to grips with a new position while also dealing with the ongoing degradation of the empire due to the secret war.  On Athoek station this is mostly through the examination of class.

Of course, this being a continuation of the themes of Ancillary Justice, class is explored through an additional layer of what it means to be human.  Are you still a worthwhile being if you have been ordered and cataloged by the society around you?  Are you even human if you don't speak the language of civilization?  This of course all being explored by someone who is decidedly not human.  An AI walking around in a stolen body.  It's the best quality of the series and Leckie doesn't let us down with her continued examination of our own society through the lens of the one she created.  The strength of her vision is evident through every carefully chosen word of the novel, continuing the thought provoking work she started in Ancillary Justice.

Even her "trick" of avoiding the naming of characters specific gender is continued here and used to great effect. The true genius of it is that you grow to simply not care who has what set of genes in their pants.  The trick is not to leave you guessing, but to reach the point where you stop guessing, because it just doesn't matter.  Her other themes are done with the same deft hand, not getting in the way of the story, but always there and available to be found without a lot of guessing and pretentious philosophizing. It's one of my favorite points of the series is that Leckie doesn't just ask these questions but shows us the path her created empire takes when it tries to answer basic questions about who is human and what it takes to be human.

As impressed as I was by the quality of the writing I still felt that there were missed opportunities by staying with the small personal stories of Athoek station and not going out into the deep problems of the war inside the Imperial Radch.  I would probably have less concerns if the ideas and concerns of the war weren't constantly being brought up in the story.  If I could have just been left to live in Athoek station I might have come to terms with the breaking of my expectations.  The story, though, constantly takes me back to all of the galactic level problems that Breq is actively avoiding and risking by going to Athoek to deal with his own personal issues.  Issues that I ultimately just found less interesting the possibilities that existed out in the warring universe that Leckie had crafted for us.

This is still an excellent extremely recommendable book, but it loses a star for me for breaking my expectations and then reminding me over and over about how broken they were.  3 out of 5. (Honestly 3.5 but goodreads don't got half numbers :( )

FEATURED REVIEW: The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Kaleb Russell

After reading this book, I‘ve realized how amazing Chuck Wendig is. Somehow he manages to write great books and give out even greater writing advice through his blog at www.terribleminds.com, which you should definitely check out after reading this review.

Deep down, under the streets of New York City, lies the Great Below, the Descent, or the Underworld. It is a great expanse of deadly denizens, monstrous cults, and even the Gods themselves who are trapped in the eternal hell.  That is until the humans, accidentally, open the gates to hell; allowing said creatures into the infinite above to rape and kill any and all the humans who reside there; to feed on their pain and make the world for humans a living hell. And these deadly creatures don’t care if they used us up completely; they only want to cause chaos on the world above them. 

Then there is The Organization. A variety of different gangs, formed together in order to keep control of prostitution, crime, and drug trade in the city of New York. The main drug being Cerulean, otherwise known as The Blue Blazes. One of the Five Occulted Pigments originating from the Great Below; it gives the user enhanced strength and allows them to strip away the veil the monsters use to hide themselves from anyone who hunts them.  One of whom happens to be one of the strongest, most vicious thug of The Organization.

He goes by the name of Mookie Pearl. Butcher, bar owner, breaker of bones (both human and demon). Don’t let the name fool you. He’s an intimidating, hulking figure who is only good at bashing the heads of anyone who trifles with The Organization. Or his estranged daughter, Nora, who comes to Mookie telling him she plans to change the game and become the next big crime boss of New York. Right after that Mookie learns the boss of The Organization, Konrad Zoladski, has terminal lung cancer. The Boss knows he doesn’t have much time left on this earth, so he decides that his grandson, Casimir, will become his successor and take control of The Organization and all that comes with it. But Casimir is not ready and he knows it. It’s then that Casimir comes to Mookie for help. He asks Mookie to find another one of the Five Occulted pigments, a purple substance known as Death’s Head, which is said to cure any disease or even bring the user back to life. The fact that no one has even seen this Pigment makes Mookie skeptical, but when he starts searching for it he finds more than he’s looking for and chaos ensues. 

The Blue Blazes was a spectacular book. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but after I continued reading it I fell in love. The world building in the book was good. We learn the origin of the Organization, the monsters that inhabit the Great Below and the Five Occulted Pigments from Mookie as he goes around the city, searching for something that might not even exist. Most of the information is given to us through the means of a journal entry by a man named John Atticus Okes, a man who delved into the Great Below and never returned, at the beginning of every chapter. I found it helpful and felt eager to read John’s story as he slowly goes mad in the Great Below. With those we could move on in the story rather than have most of it introducing the world and more time was spent developing the characters. 

Another thing I loved about the book were the action scenes. I felt they were fast paced and well executed. It felt like I was actually there to witness the battle between Mookie and all the creatures of the night. My favorite thing about The Blue Blazes was the family dynamic between Mookie and his daughter Nora who is constantly at her dad’s throat for abandoning her and her mother. I don’t believe Nora’s character was as fleshed out as I’d liked it. She acts like a spoiled brat throughout most of the novel and even admits it from time to time. But even with that I still enjoyed how Mookie was always willing to save his daughter even with all the things she’d done. Some fathers wouldn’t go through that much trouble to help their children when they are in dire need of help. It made my heart warm when reading it. Mookie isn’t the big bad monster everyone makes him out to be. In truth, he’s a man who loves his family and friends. I sympathized with him whenever something went wrong with him on his journey. 
Honestly, I have nothing to gripe about. This was a great book and when I try to think of any negatives, my mind draws a blank. 

Final Verdict: Why are you still here?! Stop reading this review and go out to buy The Blue Blazes this minute! It’s an amazing book and you’d have to be doped up on the Blue not to see it. 

And please let me know if you found this review helpful as well as what you feel like I need to work on. Thank you for reading.

FEATURED REVIEW: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Derek Brown

It turns out that you can go home again. Or at least you can if you're Stephen King.

I just finished this, King's sequel to a much earlier work. The Shining is the story of a small child, trapped in a world so much more dangerous than the one other kids inhabit, because he has a special talent. A power that supernatural forces want to consume. In Doctor Sleep, we get to see that small child, now grown, haunted by the same affliction that nearly drove his own father to murder his wife and son. Not his power, but the drinking problem he now has, the only thing he has yet found to suppress his terrible, awesome power, and keep the ghosts of his childhood quiet. 

To me, this story is largely about demons. Recognizing the worst of them for what they are, and realising that you are never alone with them.

Its also a story about another small child, afflicted (or gifted) with her own set of abilities, and because ka is a wheel, and it always turns, this little girl is also chased by supernatural forces eager to consume her. 

I can't overstate how much I enjoyed this book. I first read The Shining over 20 years ago, and its one that's always really resonated with me. Getting to revisit the landscape of that work with King, seeing what happened to Danny Torrance after the events at the Overlook Hotel, and finding out how his life turned out because of it was a lot of fun. 

Fans of King's other novels will find a healthy helping of the usual Easter eggs here as well. If you've read any of his other books, you'll enjoy the many references to King's integrated universe. 

The only item to note (and it's not a negative, but it is a warning), would be that I consider either reading The Shining or seeing the original Kubrick movie a definite prerequisite to reading this book. Preferably both, so you'll know the correct version of the story that King uses to jump from, but also so that you'll have the awesome imagery from the movie to help light the way. 

FEATURED REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Review by Carolina Gomez

Freedom, like anything else, is relative.

Why I read this book

Last year (2013) I read my first book from Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman, and loved it. The way she threw fiction elements while making a very impressive critique of society was amazing for me, and so I wanted to keep reading her work. The Handmaid's Tale has been mentioned several times as an iconic part of her work and when I saw it on my recommended on Audible it was a no brainer to get myself a copy.

What the book is about

The book is set in a dystopian future, taking place mostly in what used to be Massachusetts. After a "terrorist" attack, a theocratic, Christian regime has taken over. Women have lost any right they might've had and all "sinners" (homosexuals, people who committed adultery, people of other faiths) have been either killed or "re educated" (are you cringing already?) . The story is told by a woman we learn to know as Offred, this implying that she is a possession of a man with Fred on his surname. Offred has been made a Handmaid which in this new country, more than servant, implies child bearer. It is explained through the book that due to chemical contamination, radiation and other factors, procreation has been in declined in the country, and hence the government have established that officials not only have a wife, but also access to women (the handmaids) that will carry their child, sort off surrogate mothers. After delivery, the child is given to the wife to raise. Offred's destiny depends on her submission and her ability to bear children.

First impressions 

Listening to this book was hard, mostly because of the way women are treated, but also because you feel that this speculative work of fiction could easily take place again (references to other theocratic regimes are easily spotted, particularly Iran). Jumps from present to past are sometimes abrupt, but it carries a good feeling of how train of thought sometimes takes place and, in my case at least, makes the connection with the protagonist even deeper. That type of writing made me feel pain, angst and helplessness as Offred was feeling them too.

Final thoughts

Is hard for me to put into words my final thoughts. See, I have a lot of feelings when I think of this book, but they are not easy to put into paper, simply because they touch so deep. But let's try.

I felt rage as a woman, at to how women were treated. I've read some other reviews saying "well this would never happen; oh our society would never let this happen to women". And yet look at all the contraception legislation in the USA, most of the definitions are being taken by male politicians, and people are going with it.

I felt afraid of this being a plausible thing, maybe not right now where I am, but somewhere in the world there is right now a totalitarian movement, feeding, slowly maybe, and growing and getting more and more powerful. There are things that seem to happen suddenly when you are far away, but is just because you weren't in site to see the tiny changes that carried a big one. And this applies to any type of changes, positive or negative, particularly since this label is so subjective. The critic about how money was not physical anymore hit a stroke in me. I never thought about how I rely on plastic more and more. Not on credit, but I use my debit card most of the time and hence my contact with physical money has been decreasing more and more.

I felt sad at the different situations Offred had to go through, leaving her past behind, having so many memories, so many loved ones that she lost, almost overnight.

I felt a bit frustrated at the end of the book, because I wanted more closure, but at the same time, the way the author rounds the whole thing up, made me "forgive" the not knowing.

I loved Claire Danes as a narrator. At first I thought her tone was a bit flat, but this was at very beginning when the character was just stating facts. As emotions surged, as different characters appeared, so did new tones, new inflictions in her voice that made me get more into the whole story.

Nobody dies of lack of sex, is lack of love we die from 

FEATURED REVIEW: The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Emily Carlson

Since this book is the third in the series, there are mild spoilers for the earlier books in this review! Be warned…

The Low-Down 
The Tyrant’s Law is the third book in the Dagger and the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham. The series as a whole follows the emergence of a cult, worshipers of a spider goddess who gives them the ability to tell the difference between spoken lies and spoken truth. As this cult gains prevalence in the political sphere after centuries of exile, the layers of lies and deceit within the court begin to crumble. The regent of the kingdom is a devotee of the new religious order, using its truth-telling abilities to interrogate and weed out dissenters from within the court. But as more and more men and women begin to doubt his motives and his abilities, his death list grows longer and his friends are fewer and far between. New power vacuums lead to chaos and the hungry spider goddess urges her followers to swallow all of the world into her cult of truth and to purge the world of all liars in the process. 

Key Themes
Truth and lies, self-deception, genocide, imperialism, DRAGONS, banking, poisoned swords, MORE DRAGONS

What’s Good 
Like the previous books, Tyrant weaves back and forth between plot-lines and characters, allowing Abraham to show us both sides of the war. Some characters are more interesting and original than others, and this form of narrative allows the reader to avoid boredom with any one story. Furthermore, Abrahams is obviously a darling of the emerging “low fantasy” sub-genre and this allows us a glimpse into multiple layers and classes of life within the kingdom. 

    Ultimately, Tyrant is about conquest and about the nature of deception – deception of the self and deception of others. One character named Kit, an apostate priest who has abandoned the spider goddess, points out the flaws in the human-lie-detectors taking over the country. Their lie detectors are only as reliable as the people they question. That is, priests can determine confidence rather than truth. If they were to ask, “Is it raining outside?” their lie detector would only be triggered if you knew you were giving the wrong answer. If you think it is raining but it’s actually try as a bone outside, their spidey-senses don’t get tripped. This leads to a multilayered understanding of the truths within the novel. It’s not as simple as who is lying, but rather who has the correct information and how are they interpreting it, etc. 

    There are also some real character gems within the novel. The tyrant whom the book is named for, Geder, is one of the most sympathetic and horrifying villains I’ve ever read. While he orders the slaughter of children and rages like a child himself, it is very easy to understand him on his own terms – a man who has always felt powerless and foolish and is now gifted with ultimate power and a gravity that makes his previous enemies shake in their boots. He tries to use his power to protect the young prince and give him a safe kingdom to rule when he comes of age. But he does it with a petty selfishness that leaves others horrified at his actions. 

What’s Less Than Good
I have a real problem with one of the main characters – the gristled captain of the guard, Marcus Wester. He is a man tortured by his own past which has also lead him to develop a savior complex for any young women in peril. I have a hard time connecting with Marcus simply because he feels overdone and a little less than believable to me. Furthermore, his impulsive actions in the book feel forced, almost like a poor plot device to force the narrative forward, rather than authentic expressions of his desperation. Also, I’ve never been one for stoicism.  

    Additionally, Abraham’s general style is slow paced. This is definitely a commitment-level series and a commitment for a novel. Although it is enjoyable, many readers will probably find themselves tapping their fingers waiting for a chapter to be over. Don’t pick this book up expecting a fast paced read; it’s not Tolkien, but it is certainly weighty. 

The Final Verdict
Sticking with Tyrant is not a bad thing; the plot in this novel seems to finally come fully into bloom (about time, after 900+ pages!) and a lot of what has been hinted at in the previous novels is finally developed. As a part of the series, Tyrant definitely represents the rising action. Tensions are boiling over, armies are moving, and characters are in peril. More than anything, this book made me excited for the Abraham’s upcoming release in the series, The Widow’s House. Fans of the series will be excited to finally get some answers (or at least some new questions to chew on until August), and I would recommend the series to anyone with some time on their hands and an affinity for slow-burn fantasy and the up and coming genre of gritty/low fantasy. 

FEATURED REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Dara Heaps

The Martian starts with our protagonist, Mark Watney (a smart Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation to me) getting struck by shrapnel from a communication satellite as he and his crew mates evac on Mars, leaving Watney behind. This premise could be very dry with all of the technical details about oxygenators and CO2 scrubbers and water reclaimers but author Andy Weir  makes it interesting. Watney has such a great voice and he's very funny, pulling the reader into the story and immediately making Watney sympathetic. 

Lucky for Watney, he is a botanist and mechanical engineer, making him well-suited to survive alone on another planet. He's able to fix problems that arise (make water from rocket fuel, build things out of spare parts, repair his home) and grow some food from Earth soil mixed with Martian soil (yay potatoes! Boo human manure. Smelly business). To keep things interesting, (Mark is alone. Things would get boring if things didn't go wrong) bad things sometimes happen. It's fun to see how Mark figures out how to solve these problems with his limited resources.

The book also follows NASA personnel on Earth as they make plans to rescue Mark. We also spend some time with Mark's crew mates aboard the Hermes. These characters aren't as fleshed out as Watney is but that's alright. After all, this is Mark's story. The NASA folks have interesting interactions and plenty of disagreements about the right course of action. I enjoyed the Earth parts as much as Mark's parts.

Not only is the plot to The Martian gripping but the writing is great as well. It's descriptive but not overly technical without sacrificing the emotion. The research that went into this book shows. Everything that happens seems totally plausible. The technology is basically modern day with perhaps a few advanced pieces of hardware but nothing that's space magic. I'm kind of floored that this is Weir's first novel. It completely blew me away. Maybe in a few years, this will be turned into a movie. Gravity meets Moon!


FEATURED REVIEW: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews from the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

UPDATE: Macmillan Audio has made a clip of the audiobook available, read by Michael Kramer. Remember, you can get a free audiobook using our link at Audible!

Executive Summary: If you enjoyed The Way of Kings, I'd be really surprised if you didn't like this one as well. Mr. Sanderson does an excellent job building on the foundation he laid down in the first novel. 

Full Review 
This is a really hard review for me to write. I probably won't do the book justice. I'm very selective about which books I give 5 stars to, and even more selective about which books I deem favorites. When I read The Way of Kings it was easily added to both lists for me. And now so is this one.

While I didn't have the same wait as anyone who read the first book when it came out, there was at least enough time to build up a sense of anticipation and a little bit of dread while I waited for this book to come out.

Would Mr. Sanderson be able to build upon the momentum of The Way of Kings or would things recede a little like most series tend to do for me? A ten-book, 10,000+ page series is really ambitious. It would be easy for things to go off the rails at any point along the way. I'm here to say: so far, so good.

I can only assume that Mr. Sanderson is writing this series specifically for me. Sure there are other people out there who seem to like his books. But there are many who are critical about them. While I may be critical of some of his other books, you won't find that here. I loved every minute of it.

The pacing might still be considered slow by those who found that the case in The Way of Kings, but I think it moves along faster as he doesn't have to do the kinds of setup he did in the first book.

One common comment I saw about book 1 was: "What is the point of Shallan here?". This book should answer that question for those people. While The Way of Kings focuses on Kaladin, this is Shallan's book.

Don't fear Kaladin fans. You'll get plenty of him in this book, but he's just not the main focus here.

Once again this is a book that just kept building momentum as it went. It started as a book I looked forward to reading each night and changed to a book I had to force myself to put down.

The structure of the book is once again the same where you have 5 parts with various interludes between each. We are introduced to some pretty interesting new characters in these short interludes, as well as revisiting a few of those we met in The Way of Kings. I would have to say that while I enjoyed them all, Lift, the young thief was my favorite. I hope we'll be seeing a lot more of her in future books, and not just the interludes.

The prologue is set at the exact same time as the prologue from The Way of Kings, only told from Jasnah's perspective instead of Szeth. This was a cool approach that I hope continues in the next few books at least. I'd like see Adolin's and Dalinar's take on these events at least.

I'd be remiss to review a Brandon Sanderson book without at least mentioning the magic system. I love the world building so far and the characters, but it's the magic system that once again shines the brightest. We learn more about surgebinding and how it works, but there is still so much left to discover. 

His creativity not only at coming up with rules for various magic systems, but at how he applies those rules in ways I would have never considered always makes for great sequences.

Overall I was really happy with this book. Kaladin is still my favorite character, yet I think I might have enjoyed this one more despite his reduced focus. Shallan really developed from an interesting side story into a proper main character in her own right.

I am already looking forward to and dreading just a bit book 3 of this series. Will Mr. Sanderson be able to work his magic yet again? Well since he's writing this series for me personally, I'm sure he will.

FEATURED REVIEW: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Welcome to another Featured Review! In this series, we' highlight book reviews from the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Tom

Review by David Goransson 

What do you get when you mix the epicness of Tolkien, exalt in the cool of “The Good The Bad and The Ugly,” are partial to Arthurian legend, and possibly (some have suggested) have overindulged in too much weed? You get “The Gunslinger” the first book in Stephen King’s Magnum Opus “The Dark Tower Series.”

This will be the third time I’ve read “The Gunslinger,” and each time I read it the more I appreciate it. Not for its plot structure, which is often times as broken as Roland--but more for its “vibe.” A certain coolness that exudes from a character who is chillingly relentless and unapologetically single-minded in his quest to the point of obsession.
Plus he has a massive pair of .45 calibre six shooters. 

For those who have finished the series, there is a lot to appreciate in rereading the beginning. There are people and characters and places and events mentioned, sometimes only in passing, that will have veterans nodding their head. But for the first timer--a lot of it will be just gibberish. And a lot of first timers will hate the ending, or “non” ending, and possibly curse the day King was born. That’s why I often suggest that virgin Tower Knights skip this book altogether. There’s nothing in the plot you actually need to start the journey. Because as a beginning this book is hopeless to the point where many will despair of the quest before its begun. But as a prequel this book is fantastic. It will be like returning to an old lover and discovering something deeper about their soul.

Do yourself a favour cully and wait a book or two till you are ready. There is no rush for this one. Else by the time you can appreciate this story you will have forgotten it. “Time’s the thief of memory” as Vannay says. So will you cry off maggot and turn aside? No? It's too bad. It will be sad to see you broken and set upon a blind path. But if you are so determined to pull leather, then take your stance with legs set wide and I will do what I can, not to convince you to read this book, but rather to continue with the next, should you stumble on the way.

****


So come, let us have our Palaver, do it please ya.

Firstly I’d advise getting a copy of the 2003 edition or later. It has been edited and revised to fit better with the following books and possibly make a bit more sense for first timers. I would also recommend having a squiz at Robert Browning's poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which inspired this book. It’s about 34 Stanza’s long and tells the story of a knight on an elusive quest for the Dark Tower, driven by duty and obsession

The Setting 
Somewhere beyond In-World, but not Mid-World. The world is broken. 


‘The world has moved on,’ we say . . . we’ve always said. But it’s moving on faster now. Something has happened to time. It’s softening’

Clocks can’t be trusted and people measure time by other means, like Jake who counts one to two weeks as “3 poops.” Distance and direction is also adrift. 

The landscape of the story looks pretty much like any barren wilderness in any Western. In fact, at the start, one could be forgiven for mistaking this book for a Western. But its not long before the reader will get the unnerving feeling that things are off kilter. Walk into Tull for example. It's your typical Western shanty complete with stables for your horse and a good old saloon come whorehouse. Except there’s a honky-tonk piano’s playing a rendition of “Hey Jude.” What the..? And pretty early on we get a random glimpse of a Taheen. Do you ken “Taheen?” Cry your pardon, but how could you, unless you had already read further into the series. Say sorry. Man’s body, raven’s head--this one anyway. There are old machines long disused, that were powered by electricity or atomics. There are slow mutants and threaded stock (non-mutated men and animals) are getting rarer. Ah, an alternate Universe? Or rather, a parallel Universe. Do you say so? One of many. "... there were many remnants of the gone world, just as there were demons.”

The Good 

Jake 

The boy who didn’t come from this place but vaguely remembers dying in a vaguely remembered other world. A world where the buildings are so tall they scrape the sky and people drink Coca Cola and watch teevee, and there is a Ka-tet of musicians who call themselves “Kiss.” Do you ken it? He loves the gunslinger, even though the gunslinger doesn’t deserve his love any more than his neglectful ma and da did--possibly less.

The Bad 

The Man in Black 

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

In Browning’s poem he is referred to as a “hoary cripple,” a liar, a kind of devil who is all too happy to take deals to point out the road to obsession. In this story he is the sort of villain who resurrects a devil weed addict and embues him with eternal life--not because he wants him to be well, but because he wants the addict to suffer in his addiction forever. He offers a barren woman a child. A child king. Just kill the unkillable interloper first. Not because he wants his enemy dead, but because he wants his enemy damned. He gives his enemy a boy to love, but .... “While you travel with the boy, the man in black travels with your soul in his pocket.”

"This bad man . . . this Marten . . . he was a wizard. Like Merlin. Do they ken Merlin where you come from?”
“Merlin and Arthur and the knights of the Round Table,” Jake said dreamily.
The gunslinger felt a nasty jolt go through him. “Yes,” he said. “Arthur Eld, you say true, I say thank ya..."


The Ugly 

The Gunslinger 

What is a “gunslinger” in this world? Well its not a cowboy with a pistol. Roland Deschain comes from the heart of In-World. From Gilead in New Canaan. A city of castles.

Yar!” He paused. “When I was your age, I lived in a walled city, did I tell you that?”


The castles are ruled by knights called “Gunslingers.” So called because of the “Irons” that are the mark of their office. Roland’s father Steven Deschain was a direct descendant of Arthur Eld and Lord of his version of Camelot.

My father had by then taken control of his ka-tet, you must ken—the Tet of the Gun—and was on the verge of becoming Dinh of Gilead, if not all In-World

But the world has moved on. And Roland is the last gunslinger and he is on a mission to fix the Universe. To find the Dark Tower. Everything else, love, family, humanity, his very soul is expendable in the light of the greater good. See it well. See it very well indeed.


****


So have I convinced you yet to carry on to book 2? I hope so. Because I’ve seen the end of that journey and would have you set upon the path. Not because I am wise or good. Perhaps I just play the hoary cripple--I say true. I say thank ya.

Long days and pleasant nights

 

FEATURED REVIEW: Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo

Welcome to our first Featured Review! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews from the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Casey Hampton

I dig the basis of this book. A generational spaceship has been exploring so long that it's forgotten its purpose (coughing-allegory). They find a planet that has evidence of horrible stuff that happened to the planet's inhabitants. The explorers quickly depart only to discover an enormous alien spaceship adrift. Next, they explore the alien spaceship and discover, wait for it, wait for it, horrible stuff that happened to what appears to be humans that mirror what they found on the planet.

Richard Paul Russo writes a slow burning SF thriller that ultimately fizzles. If you read this anticipating the end justifying your reading, disappointment lies ahead. But if you read this for the experience, then I think you can find happiness or at least some measure of satisfaction.

No spoilers, but my favorite character is the coffee-growing dwarf who occasionally drinks too much of his homebrewed whiskey. 

I was underwhelmed with the whole theological dilemma that's hoisted and hung on the hook. Is there a God? If there's a God, why do bad things happen? Oh, they happen because we have freewill? Oh, we have freewill, and God feels guilty because he gave it to us?

There's nothing wrong in asking these questions or writing a story about them. I'm grousing because for as much as these issues were intended to drive the narrative, they're never satisfyingly resolved. In the end, they act as more of a distraction (allegorically ironic?) and less centrally relevant. I just wish Russo had been subtler and allowed the reader to make more of the connections rather than painting such a vivid theological landscape.

As previously mentioned, the book's conclusion is a bit flat. But the best part, my favorite part, was when they were exploring the enormous alien ship. So good, why didn't we get more of this? I could have been as happy as a clam at high tide to be shown more of those endless passages and odd little rooms with their secrets.